Welcome to this week’s installment of The Scariest Part, a recurring feature in which authors, comic book writers, filmmakers, and game creators tell us what scares them in their latest works of horror, dark fantasy, dark science fiction, and suspense. (If you’d like to be featured on The Scariest Part, please review the guidelines here.)
My guest is Jasper Bark, whose essay below is one of my favorites I’ve run in this feature so far. It discusses an issue that all writers face at some point in their careers and really resonated with me. His latest book is the collection Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts. Here is the publisher’s description:
A word of caution gentle reader, these tales will take you places you’ve never been before and may never dare revisit. They’ll whisper truths so twisted you can only face them in the darkest hours of the night. They’ll unlock desires so decadent you’ll never wash their taint from your flesh.
All it takes is a single turn of the page and your taste in dark fiction will be transformed forever. So you have to ask yourself: “How daring do I feel…?”
Includes a foreword by Pat Cadigan.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Jasper Bark:
There were lots of scary parts to writing my latest collection, Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts. Believe it or not, the scariest part wasn’t walking away from a huge sum of money in order to do it.
A year or so ago I was writing a script for a major UK gaming company. It was tedious work, the people I was working with had no imagination and would unfailingly ask me to take anything imaginative or even halfway interesting out of the script. What was left was bland, pointless and often incomprehensible. As you can imagine it was soul destroying work, but the money was great and they’d also offered me two further contracts for even more money. I was set for several years.
But I was trapped.
Until my wife kicked my butt and told me I was never going to get anywhere as a writer if I kept on taking jobs simply for the money. I’d given up a well paid career as a film and music journalist to write full time and mostly I was doing hack work. That was no way to establish a name or a career as a writer. It didn’t matter how good the money was, she argued, if I was serious about becoming a real writer I should be doing something else.
Yes, I have a wife that awesome. Don’t ask me how I managed that. She’s impervious to mind control, blackmail or old school voodoo (believe me I’ve tried) so it’s probably down to pure dumb luck on my part.
So I walked away from the job to sit down and write horror stories, a genre with which I was increasingly becoming identified. It was terrifying but it wasn’t the scariest part.
Writing about what scares you as a person is a truly frightening prospect. You’re not going to scare your reader unless your story deeply scares you, that’s why you have to write about your own worst fears. However, admitting what frightens us most means making ourselves incredibly vulnerable to a bunch of strangers, because we’re publicly revealing our worst traits, our weakest failings and the ways in which we can be most deeply and irrevocable hurt. We do this in the hope that other people share those fears and, by facing them together, we can become stronger and more able to deal with them. But owning up to things that we rarely tell even our nearest and dearest is a scary prospect. However, it wasn’t the scariest part of writing this book either.
Squaring up to my blank laptop screen, and determining what I was going to say, in my one shot at leaving behind something of note for future readers, that was quite honestly the scariest part. That meant finding my real voice and accepting that it deserved to be heard.
For all the encouragement we get growing up and as an adult, we also face a certain amount of discouragement. The teacher who gives you a low mark on a great piece of writing because of its punctuation, the Goodreads reviewer who didn’t finish your book but gave it one star on account of the first chapter, the guy in the front row of your reading who yawns and snickers the whole time when everyone else is held rapt. The people who ask you what right you have to write the things you do, without ever once asking what right they have to ask that question.
Twenty people might tell you how much they loved your book and one person might tell you it stank and I can guarantee that’s the comment you’ll take away. We hang on far more tightly to negative feedback than positive, and sometimes it can build a wall between us and our confidence. It also feeds the little voice at the back of our minds that tells us we can’t write, anything we produce is rubbish and bound to fail, so we really shouldn’t try in the first place.
Overcoming that voice is a regular and unavoidable part of being a writer. Everyone who writes has to deal with it and it never becomes any easier, because shouting that false voice down is what finding your real voice is all about. It means proving that you not only have something to say, but that you can say it in a way that no-one else can and that’s why you deserve to be heard. That was truly the scariest part of writing this book.
I’m glad I faced that fear because it’s taken me to a whole new level as a writer. So far the advance reviews have all given the book five stars and it’s winning me new readers every day, many of whom have been kind enough to drop me a line and share their appreciation. So if I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s this:
The scariest part of writing something is actually the most necessary.
Jasper Bark finds writing author biographies and talking about himself in the third person faintly embarrassing. Telling you that he’s an award winning author of four cult novels including the highly acclaimed Way of the Barefoot Zombie just sounds like boasting. Then he has to mention that he’s written 12 children’s books and hundreds of comics and graphic novels and he wants to just curl up. He cringes when he has to reveal that his work has been translated into nine different languages and is used in schools throughout the UK to help improve literacy, or that he was awarded the This Is Horror Award for his recent anthology Dead Air. Maybe he’s too British, or maybe he just needs a good enema, but he’s glad this bio is now over.